04 April 2012

Angkor Thom - a city for the gods

South Gate of Angkor Thom
It is often overlooked by visitors that Angkor consists of more than just Angkor Wat. Angkor Thom is even larger and in my mind more impressive. It is undoubtedly the "Great City", which at its height is said to have had more than a million people living there. It extends to more than 10 square kilometers and is centered on the Bayon, which we picked as our blog name and image. 

The moat surrounding Angkor Thom
The ancient city's gates are immense and representative to a great nation. More than 20 meters high and crowned with four faces of the Bodhisattva Lokeshvara they made us feel like entering another world. The south gate is the busiest one with most tourists coming through that way, but there can be moments of serenity even here, depending on the time of the day and the route of the group tourists. However, we also chose this gate since it is the most restored one. 

Standing at the huge 100 meter wide moat, which surrounds the ancient city, we can only imagine how stunned visitors in the past must have been when they looked at the crocodiles-filled water. Today it offers a quiet setting, nice views onto the moat, the 8 meter high and 13 kilometer long wall and the causeway over it. 

The god's side of the causeway
Giant statues of 54 gods on one side and 54 demons on the other side line the causeway, adding up to the sacred number of 108. 108 mythical beings, holding the huge body of the Naga, guarding the Great City. What a starting point to visit Angkor Thom! 

My tour guide gave me his brief introduction again as we walked past the huge heads of the gods and through the gate, being passed by elephants, tuk-tuks and bicycles. Luckily no cars or mini-buses, which provided a perfect atmosphere. I did come back again one evening and the light of the setting sun on the faces was just awesome. 

The Bayon temple is a major stop here and since it is so important I will focus on it in a separate blog. 

Impressive Baphoun temple
Though we had our own transportation, Angkor Thom is best experienced by foot, so we walked a lot and took an insane number of photos.

The Baphoun temple is a huge structure and is still being restored today. When I visited it the first time it looked even more incomplete, since restoration work had stopped here for 20 years during the Khmer Rouge years. 300.000 stones, which were taken apart before the civil war, were left untouched until after the war. While the structure is impressive, there is no such greatness to see as in Angkor Wat or in the Bayon. Back in the year 2000 we saw single stones lying around a huge area and a lot of them have been put back into this huge puzzle of stones forming one huge dome, but it is by far not living up to the grandeur it must have once had as a Hindu temple structure.

Terrace of the Elephants
After the Baphoun we visited the Terrace of the Elephants, a more than 300 meter long wall and platform decorated with life size lions and garudas as well as sections showing elephants with their trunks. This is where the remains of the former Royal Palace start, which we did not visit this time around. We have to leave some monuments for a future visit! 

The Terrace of the Leper King is the continuation of the platform to the north. There is so much detail and so many temples and monuments to see here in the heart of Angkor Thom, that we could easily spend a full day here alone. But most visitors just pay a brief visit to the Bayon and then go on to continue their tour, which leaves enough opportunity to explore the Great City almost undisturbed from other tourists. 

Lions and Garudas
Again, I cannot put enough emphasis on the need of a good tour guide, since we walked through all of Angkor Thom years ago with our book and map only and we had not the slightest understanding of what we were seeing. Most visitors probably do not even care. I had a guy with his bicycle hanging on to our tuk-tuk for a while when we approached Angkor Thom, asking me what was good to see here. He said, he had ONE day to visit all of Angkor! And here we were, spending a full day at Angkor Thom's monuments!

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